Collops and Fíbíns.

Manchán Magan writes about “the lost language of Ireland’s landscape”:

Do you understand the sentence: the banbh was hiding out in the clochán from the brothall? Or how about: I took the boreen over the bawn and down the congár through the cluain beyond the esker to fetch some dillisk on the cladach.

The language we use to describe landscape, farming and the natural world in Ireland is changing so fast that a person can be aged to within a few decades by their understanding of a single sentence. Your grandfather would likely know what biolar, caonach and bundún mean; while you probably understand bawn, kesh and crubeen, but your children mightn’t understand any of these. They mightn’t even know what a gandal is, or have ever been chased by a furiously hissing one.

The English spoken in Ireland (Hiberno-English) even 40 years ago was so speckled with residual Irish words that it can appear today like another tongue. Each of us holds fond memories of words our grandparents used that are now largely meaningless. Cróinín always held a particular fondness for me – it means the first run of small autumn salmon; and branar, which refers to a stretch of broken lea. Nowadays, even the English word “lea” is understand by few: in Britain it refers to meadow or arable land, while in Ireland it normally describes land that has been ploughed, or grubbed before seeding. As to what “grubbed” means, well, that’s a whole other story.

If you’re wondering, collop is “the old count for the carrying power of land” (“The grazing of one cow or two yearling heifers or six sheep or twelve goats or six geese and a gander was one collop”), and fíbín is “the running of cattle caused by the sting of a gadfly.” It’s a great read, and it quotes PW Joyce, the great-great-uncle of Trevor Joyce, who sent me the link — thanks, Trevor!


  1. You need the same sized collop to feed 12 goats or 6 geese and a gander? Unbelievable!

  2. It would be interesting to see a similar list for English, which has also lost many such words. E.g.: “A Warwickshire correspondent says, that in that county the first swarm of bees is simply called a swarm, the second from the same hive is called a cast, and the third from the same hive a spindle.” The English Dialect Dictionary also gives hob and kive as names for the third swarm in other counties, while the Shropshire Word-Book says that in that county the third swarm is called a bunt, while the fourth, “of rare occurrence”, is a couch.

  3. “congár” is a misspelling; the correct “cóngar” appears later in the article.

    An “acre” was originally a relative measure, and remained so in Ireland long enough to cause confusion during the land confiscations of the 17th century (and later).

    “banbh” may be fading but “bonham” is still quite well-known.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Geese digest grass in 20 minutes. I don’t know how efficient that is. Goats ruminate.

  5. Hannelore Kleiner-Zapfenstreich says:

    Nice post. Just yesterday I looked up “loy”, an English word (from Irish) for something like a ploughing spade associated with Irish agriculture of the past. Now you give me “lea”, which I didn’t know either, so I had to look it up, but the latter is apparently of Germanic origin despite their similarity.

  6. “bonham” is still quite well-known.

    Well, I should hope so.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    David M: Geese digest grass in 20 minutes. I don’t know how efficient that is

    Migratory Canada geese stopping by in a city park, eating the grass, make footpaths unpleasant and even dangerous to use because of the slippery excrements they leave on them. How is that for digestive efficiency.

  8. “You need the same sized collop to feed 12 goats or 6 geese and a gander? Unbelievable!”

    Not at all. It depends on how much browse there is for the goats or how much grass for the geese.

  9. Esker is a standard geological term: ‘a long ridge of gravel and other sediment, typically having a winding course, deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier or ice sheet’. I never knew till today that it was of Irish origin.

    We also took old English words and repurposed them for our own use, such as ditch, which in Britain [and other anglophone countries] refers to a narrow excavated channel, while in Ireland it means a raised bank.

    OE dīc could mean either ‘ditch’ or ‘dike’; I had assumed that the latter was Norse, but not so according to the OED2. So it’s a matter of local specialization, not of repurposing. The cognates sometimes mean elevated land (Dutch dijk, Danish dige ‘dam’), sometimes low watery region (German Teich ‘artificial pond’, Swedish dike ‘ditch’).

  10. I just read “Helm’s Deep” to my son this morning. The name “Helm’s Dike” refers to both an excavated trench and the earthen rampart behind it. Tolkien speaks both of Rohirrim guards atop The dike and orcish corpses filling the dike.

  11. The Latin fossa means both dike and ditch and even moat, so these vernacular words may calque or reflect that.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    When you dig, the dirt has to go somewhere, so a ditch can be flanked by its complement, an elevated rampart. It fairly often happens that a pair of opposite or complementary words can end up meaning just the one or the other.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Do people who have specific practical need for words like these still use them or do they use other words even when they need to draw fine distinctions (such as between different swarms of bees from the same hive)? All trades and professions tend to have specialized jargon that is opaque to outsiders (often because it draws fine distinctions that are typically irrelevant to outsiders yet important to the practice of the trade) — what’s different here is that back only a few centuries ago when perhaps >90% of speakers of English (Hiberno- or otherwise) were engaged inagriculture for a living, the specialized in-group jargon of farming was inevitably part of the mainstream language, outside of perhaps a few ignorant city slickers. Now that the percentage engaged in farming is down in the low single digits that is unsurprisingly no longer generally the case.

  14. Lars (the original one) says:

    Fake news! Danish dige means ‘dike’ both in the flood protection sense or as a boundary marker, made from earth or built from field stones. (Denmark is mostly gravel, but the ice did leave lots of larger stones as well which frost and other processes keep lifting up where they obstruct the plow). The earthen ones are sometimes the product of digging a drainage ditch along the perimeter of a low-lying area that is also prone to flooding.

    A dam (which is the same thing except it actually has water on one side) is en dæmning.

  15. Thanks for the precisions, as m-l says. At any rate, it means an elevated rather than a low-lying and water-filled location.

    (Denmark is mostly gravel, but the ice did leave lots of larger stones as well which frost and other processes keep lifting up where they obstruct the plow).

    Sounds heart-warmingly familiar. New England lay under the Ice at the same time, and has a similar gravel landscape with lots and lots of rocks, which is why it is not intensively farmed today — New England farmers moved westward to better and easier land for the most part, though there is maize grown here, as well as basically uncultivated agricultural products like maple syrup, cranberries, and blueberries. (For geological purposes, New York State east of the Hudson River is part of New England; indeed, Long Island, N.Y. which runs east to west for 190 km south of New England proper, is basically the terminal moraine for the Ice as a whole on its north side, the south side being accreted beach sand.) We too made fences from the rocks, as in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.

    Similarly, we have acidic soil including bogs (complete with bog iron, though no people have been found in them that I know of), produced from the natural filling-in of kettle ponds (places where a particularly large chunk of the ice melted all at once). Indeed, iron artifacts found at L’Anse aux Meadows may be in part local bog iron. Fortunately, the sea washed over parts of New England, so there are deposits of limestone as well, making it practical to deacidify the soil.

    I suspect the chief reason for the uplift of rocks through the soil, there as here, is glacial rebound: the ground level is still rising at about 10 cm a year as it recovers from the crushing force of the Ice.

  16. Lars (the original one) says:

    10cm a year is a lot — central Sweden is rising at 1cm per year, but since the latest ice never covered southern Denmark and it’s the same plate, the whole thing tilts and Slesvig is actually sinking very slowly while uplift in more northerly part is also quite slow.

    In any case, unless you have a process that removes topsoil to keep the surface at the same absolute height above sea lever, I don’t really see how glacial uplift can move stones upwards relative to the rest of the soil. The accepted explanation in Denmark is a combination of gradually deeper plowing, levelling of never-cultivated hills and old fences when fields are redrawn, freeze/thaw processes, and fallible memory that doesn’t recognize that the number of ‘new’ stones per year (and their sizes) is actually diminishing over time.

  17. Sorry, I misread a source: it’s 4 inches (10 cm) per decade, so about the same as Sweden. And yes, the trigger is not uplift as such but deforestation by Europeans. Without forest cover, the land is colder than it would have been otherwise, frost heaving increases, and the rocks rise up. But when they are removed, they are then replaced by yet more rocks coming from below.

  18. Temperature effects can be startling. Sea level rise is due almost as much to the thermal expansion of the oceans as to polar icecap melting.

  19. “Since 1997, students at Tampere have made annual excursions to Turku to jump on the market square, doing their part to undo the post-glacial rebound and push the city back under the sea.”

  20. Is Turku that bad? 😉

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Rivalization between Finland’s second and third largest cities. I could easily see the same thing happening between Bergen and Trondheim in Norway.

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